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Like many residential buildings around D.C., the Tyler House apartments at North Capitol Street and New York Avenue NW feature a homey faux living-room set in the lobby. The furnishings adhere to a decorative scheme of grandma chic, save for the lack of plastic slipcovers. Two plush “brocade” fabric sofas face each other, and rust-colored easy chairs flank their sides. The setup is inviting, but there’s a problem.
“You can’t sit there,” a guard explained to a guest on a recent afternoon.
The Tyler House lounge area is nothing more than a mirage in the middle of the 288-unit Section 8 complex. Neither residents nor visitors are allowed to leave their ass imprints on any of the furniture, making the entryway of Tyler more of a Marlo Furniture showroom than a meeting place.
But of all the off-limit objects, nothing has irritated and mystified residents as much as the nonutilitarian pair of sofas, which residents refer to collectively as “the couch.” “The couch has always been a big deal,” says Tyler House Residential Council President Jim Brown. “It’s the stupidest thing on earth.”
The couch first appeared in the Tyler House lobby in 1996, part of a multi-million-dollar renovation of the affordable-housing project. But as residents soon found out, neither they nor their guests were allowed to enjoy the most public improvement to the building—although they quickly discovered there are some exceptions to the rule. “One security guard had a friend come visit and she sat on it,” claims one tenant, who declined to give her name. “But people who live here can’t?”
Over the years, as the three towers of Tyler House have endured wear and tear, the injustice of the unusable lobby furniture has taken a back seat to other problems. Residents today complain about broken windows and doors, unpainted units, and filthy carpets. Meanwhile, the couch remains pristine—a mocking tribute to its formerly crisp habitat. “At other buildings, they have furniture, it gets old, and they throw it out and buy some more,” says one security guard at Tyler, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know why they can’t do that here.”
The reason, according to Nancy West, regional manager for Tyler House, has less to do with keeping the couch eBay-ready than with keeping the entrance from becoming a big indoor block party.
“The issue is not that no one can sit on the sofa,” says West. “The issue is residents cannot loiter in the lobby.”
West says that management deemed the lobby an ass-free zone when the furniture first arrived, almost a decade ago. The pieces selected were meant only for show. “It’s not any sort of industrial furniture,” she says. “It’s just a sofa, a chair, there for decorative purposes.” West says that if management had intended for the area to become a lounge, it would have purchased more durable furniture: “We have children and babies—and there are urinary issues with children, of course.”
In order to keep wet diapers off the couch, management depends on guards and residents alike to enforce the rule, and West says they have proved up to the challenge. They are so good at upholding the laws of the living room that not even West herself is able to rest in the lobby.
“One time, I made the mistake of sitting down—someone was quick to tell me, ‘You can’t sit there.’ Of course I know that—it was a momentary lapse. I got up immediately and haven’t sat on it since.”
But residents say that the Tyler management’s desire to maintain such a showplace is hollow—it’s only to impress the odd important visitor who comes to tour the property.
“They want to make it so when visitors come in, they say, ‘Oh, gee! What a beautiful lobby!’” says Brown. “But they don’t want them to see the graffiti, the holes in the walls, and the windows with no screens.”
Banished from their own lobby, residents find ways to socialize without encroaching on the sanctity of the furniture grouping. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, one woman created her own makeshift lounge by carting a chair and a bag of Guacamole Doritos from her apartment to the small patio at the back of the complex’s A Tower. Another woman, with a cast on her foot, hung out behind the building—not even injury has granted her a couch pass.
“It’s about how they treat tenants, all the way down to something as stupid as saying ‘You can’t sit on the furniture,’” says Brown. “The Watergate lobby, one of the most exclusive hotels in the city, there’s furniture there—do you not see people sitting on it? Now what the hell is Tyler House?” CP